Monday, May 25, 2009

Women, Sex, and Paleolithic Art

This is a subject upon which I rant in class with measurable frequency (at least once per quarter, two classes, four times a year). Although my students have been spared this quarter because I've been on leave, I was reminded forcefully of the problem by recent headlines about a little carved ivory figurine found in Hohle Fels Cave in Germany. The tiny figure, possibly meant to be worn around the neck on a string, has been described as "Prehistoric Porn" and by University of Tübingen archaeologist Nicholas Conardas (who should know better) as being "sexually charged." A series of detailed photos are available at Spiegel Online, and it's pretty obvious that media hype took over on this one fairly quickly.

I've already mentioned this event (because the media silliness has overshadowed the discovery itself) on The Farm in the "Nature and/as Nurture" post. But it's time to inflict my angst on any hapless reader who finds this essay (and they well might if they're looking for prehistoric pornography, due to the tags I've chosen), because the story is really about ignorance and the need for enlightenment. I am bloody well sick and tired of bad interpretation in general and in particular the idiocy surrounding the steatopygous figures (so-called "Venuses" even though they have nothing to do with the Roman goddess of erotic love, who didn't come along until several thousand years later) found in prehistoric Europe and Asia Minor. It's another example of bad metaphor at work, and probably more evidence of the impact of what Elizabeth Fisher calls "the pernicious analogy."

Fisher's book, Woman's Creation: Sexual Evolution and the Shaping of Society, was published in 1979, but I knew nothing of it until I read Ursula K. Le Guin's essay, "The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction" (reprinted in 1996 in The Ecocriticism Reader, and available online through Google Books; I first read it in her essay anthology, Dancing at the Edge of the World, published in 1989). I located Woman's Creation at the university library, and later copied it in toto because it was already out of print. In her book, Fisher introduces an interesting hypothesis, which is probably even more convincing now that we know more about early technologies than we once did.

Here's the basic problem. When I first studied anthropology in the mid-sixties, the current notion of human nature was as homo faber: man the maker (emphasis on man, for my purposes). What made us human, and significantly different from other species, goes the idea, was that we made and used tools. Of course, later evidence emerged that smudged that theory pretty seriously, when other animals (primate and otherwise) were seen to engage in tool-making and -using. But the initial observation was based on a bogus idea in the first place--and one you can see working in the "Dawn of Man" sequence of the Clarke/Kubrick film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. What makes us human in that film is 1) influence of a higher intelligence that 2) teaches us how to whack each other over the head with "tools" made of animal bones. (If this sounds familiar to Farm readers, I've probably already held forth on a similar topic; while I was looking for such mention I discovered just how repetitive I tend to be.)

One of the problems with the archaeological record in the first place is that it's always incomplete. It consists only of artifacts that have managed to survive the millennia. This automatically precludes anything perishable: tissue and fiber especially (unless preserved in a medium like a peat bog or ice). So anything woven from plant materials is very likely to have been devoured by the same little beasties that make sure human flesh doesn't stay on buried bones. If, as Elizabeth Wayland Barber (in Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years) and Elizabeth Fisher both claim, women's technologies had to do with carrying babies and food (weaving, basket-making, etc.), little of that activity will be represented. All we find (even in my own limited experience as an archaeologist) are sturdier materials, such as the stuff of which tools are made. Hence the original assumption.

The neglect of women in early considerations of human nature is based on the absence of evidence, not its presence. It's also based on a notion of male prowess and sexual power that may have been entirely different during the late Pleistocene than it is today (with our current preoccupations with drugs to alleviate "diseases" such as "ED" and "Low T"). Elizabeth Fisher suggests that until human beings settled into more or less permanent agricultural communities with their recently domesticated animals, men may not have known that they had anything to do with "fathering" children at all. Sex and parenthood even in some extant small-scale societies are separate functions, because children are seen as gifts from spirits or gods. Fatherhood in such situations is a social role, rather than biological, because the "actual" father may be different (especially in cultures where young girls are married off to much older men). Women are the givers and nurturers of children, not men. The relationship between sex and procreation becomes clearer once the consequences are observable in animals with shorter gestation periods, and that's when any egalitarian relationship between men and women that may have existed before settled agriculture begins to erode.

The year I started college, 1966 marks a sea-change in the understanding of hunting and gathering cultures. As research by Richard Lee and Ervin DeVore among peoples like the !Kung San in southwestern Africa showed us, gathering was responsible for a substantial portion of any group's caloric intake. Not hunting: gathering, performed by women collecting food and carrying it home in baskets, nets, and other containers, also created by women.

Settled agriculture and the planting of seeds changed all that, as Fisher makes clear. Not only did men discover their role in making babies, but they began to imagine a connection between the planting and growing of seeds and the "planting" of "seeds" in the womb of the mother. Of course we know now that the analogy is faulty because a seed is itself a fertilized ovum; a man cannot "plant" a baby in its mother--he needs the mother's egg. But back on the early farmstead, one can imagine the scenario:

Women are powerful creatures. They bleed every month, have babies, give milk, gather and prepare food, weave clothing and containers. Men hunt occasionally, distribute the meat, make tools to hunt; later, they perhaps make the implements to cultivate crops, and they may plant the fields. Perhaps they harvest. And then one of them rises up, beats his chest and says to his buddies: We are the planters of the seed. The woman is only the dirt in which we plant the seed that makes the child. She is an empty vessel. We have the power of life.

Hence what Fisher calls the "pernicious analogy": semen = seed. So it shouldn't be surprising that when modern males (even some who are smart enough to know what the role of women was really like) uncover voluptuous-looking figures of women they're quite comfortable seeing these figures as the prehistoric equivalent of Playboy.

I always thought it odd that men might carry around miniature dollies to arouse their passions, and thought it far more likely that the shape of these figures might instead provide an inspiration for women. Since gatherers don't usually carry around a lot of body fat, if they fall below 10% their monthly menstrual/ovulatory cycles cease and they can't conceive. Women with a substantial amount of body fat, however, especially in the breasts, stomachs, hips, buttocks, and thighs, are surely fertile or have already borne children.

So before folks start going off on porn, perhaps they should consider the very real possibility that these examples of portable art were carried by women as fertility talismans. Men were undoubtedly too busy polishing their spears (ahem) and telling hunting yarns to play with dolls. In truth, the only thing it's really possible to know about these figures is where they were found, what they were made of, and about how old they are. The date might be interesting (we, homo sapiens sapiens, keep getting older and older with each new discovery), but more bad metaphors don't do anybody any good.

Addendum: A more recent article in the Huffington Post offers a different interpretation, and points to the existence of a goddess culture in Paleolithic Europe. As sympathetic as I am to ideas other than the notion of "Venuses" and pornography, the jury on the goddess culture is still out--for reasons that I address above: we can only be certain about the location, the material composition, and the date of these figures. The older they are, the harder it is for us to know anything else.

Image credits: I pinched the Hohle Fels figurine image from this excellent Science Daily article because it invited me to "enlarge" it. The Woman from Willendorf is from Wikimedia Commons and taken by Oke.